Harvard’s Kennedy School Adds Privilege-Checking to New-Student Orientation [Updated]

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Photo: Bettmann/CORBIS

The wonks in training at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government will soon be subjected to a new and touchy-feely line of inquiry: Checking Your Privilege 101. In response to growing demand from student activists, administrators committed Friday to adding a session in power and privilege to its orientation program for incoming first-year students, according to student group HKS Speak Out.

“We’re at one of the most powerful institutions in the world, yet we never critically examine power and privilege and what it means to have access to this power,” says Reetu Mody, a first-year masters student in public policy and a campus activist. “We’re excited to have the administration on board for training all Harvard Kennedy School first years.”

Privilege — a catchall term for the perks an individual enjoys in society because of his race, gender, or class — has been used to analyze social inequality for decades. It’s also enjoying something of a moment, thanks to social-justice bloggers and their critics, like Princeton freshman Tal Fortgang. In a viral article for the conservative Princeton Tory, Fortgang wrote that calls to “check his privilege” — that is, to consider how his good fortune might impair his ability to empathize with others in any given debate — “threaten to strike down opinions without regard for their merits” and “solely on the basis of the person that voiced them.” Being told to check his privilege is not overt reverse racism, Fortgang admitted, but it “toes the line.”

Mody has some sympathy for Fortgang and his ilk. “If what you’ve been told all your life is you’re really talented and you deserve what you have, it’s going to be really hard to find out Maybe I don’t deserve it, and all these other people equally deserve it but never even had a shot,” she says. “Schools are not giving students a space to manage that loss of identity.”

She says most of the resistance to discussing privilege comes from those who (mistakenly) believe it’s about making individuals feel guilty. That’s why Mody thinks Kennedy School of Government makes a good pilot program for institutionalized privilege-checking. For them, examining the world and your position in it isn’t just a feel-good liberal intellectual exercise; it’s a practical tool for people who hope to be leaders.

Mody and other students began to organize for privilege training in the fall, when they bonded over their shared experiences of classroom hostility toward racial critiques. (Mody herself once walked out of a class on implicit cognitive biases when the professor told her, “This isn’t a discussion about racism.”) In October, they held an HKS Speak Out, where students shared stories of racial insensitivity, and in the spring, they created a Tumblr where more students joined the conversation anonymously — crucial, Mody says, at a school where everyone plans to run for office.

“Sometimes I feel that whole topics would be glossed over or completely misunderstood if I weren’t there to share my poor minority perspective,” one contributor wrote. “I remember sitting in class first semester and thinking, ‘No wonder the policies in America are so ass backwards! Harvard policy makers have no idea what they’re talking about, no accurate historical knowledge, no personal context, and no humility or courage to simply admit they don’t know and ask someone who does.’”

Last month, they held a privilege walk: 77 students occupied the school’s courtyard, where two facilitators led a “privilege visualization exercise.”

HKS Speak Out is still deciding what the content of the orientation program will be. “The substance of the training, while still under discussion, is to prepare students to understand the broad impact of identity on their decision-making and to engage them in constructive tools for dialogue,” Mody says. She’s reluctant even to name a text she’d put on the syllabus, though she’d like to mandate faculty training in privilege and power too. She likens it to the math classes masters candidates are sent to so they can apply economic theories.“If you don’t have an understanding of sociology, political science, critical race theory, feminist critique, and revisionist history,” Mody warns, “it’s going to be very difficult to talk about certain groups’ experiences, and why these other groups continually have this advantage in society.”

Update: Harvard’s Kennedy School emailed, objecting to our use of “power and privilege” to describe the orientation training’s content.

“We have conveyed that we are committed to revamping our  current session on diversity offered at orientation to something that will help students better understand the broad impact of identity on their decision making as future policy makers and equip them with the tools necessary to engage in constructive dialogue. As noted earlier, learning to have constructive conversations in the context of differences in race, gender, cultural background, political viewpoints and many other perspectives is important in any graduate school, particularly one dedicated to preparing its students to be effective leaders and policymakers.”